The Final Bell

The passing of wrestling promoter Sam Muchnick rekindles interest in the wrestling days of yore

Though there are plenty of small-circulation magazines dedicated to the old days of professional wrestling, it's the modern version of the sport that's brought big dollars into play, with the stars of the game edging into mainstream status.

All those "NWO" T-shirts, all those "Austin 3:16" caps, all that talk about Jesse "The Body" Ventura's ascension to the role of Minnesota governor. Stories on Bill Goldberg and Steve Austin in Spin, Rolling Stone, USA Today. All compliments of a game that many still find, well, ridiculous and beyond belief.

Veteran wrestling announcer and writer Larry Matysik, the voice of the KPLR (Channel 11) show Wrestling at the Chase in its last years, answers the age-old question of credibility, saying, "For those of us in the business, who've put blood, sweat and tears into it, it's real. It's absolutely real."

Or, as he eloquently puts it: "For nonbelievers, no answer is satisfactory. For believers, no answer is necessary."

One of the greatest believers in the sport was a venerable St. Louisan, Sam Muchnick, who died on Dec. 30 at the age of 93. He was the leading promoter in St. Louis for decades, with his live cards at Kiel Auditorium and his tape-delayed broadcasts of the classic Wrestling at the Chase evoking memories for plenty of St. Louisans in all age groups.

Matysik says he was hired by Muchnick to do play-by-play for the Chase series, with a minimum of input from Muchnick.

"It's funny," Matysik says. "From the start, he never led me into doing it in any particular way. He wanted to do it as a sport, to do straight announcing. He didn't like the hard sells, the carnival-barker stuff -- which was fine, because I agreed with that. With Mickey Garagiola and I, it was like listening to your neighbors talk about wrestling. It's not that we knew any more about wrestling than you did; it's not that we're geniuses. It's just that we were around it more. It's something that Jack Buck once said.

"I remember growing up with Jack Buck, Buddy Blattner, Harry Caray, Joe Garagiola doing the calls. And it wasn't until I was into the matchmaking end of things, towards the end, that I knew what would happen. Nobody knew. The business was very much protective. In fact, that might be too soft of a word. They just really didn't want people to know."

And, as Matysik notes, that filtered right down to the announcers at ringside, who were calling the action "blind," not sure which way the bout would turn. It kept things interesting for them and for the audience.

Muchnick's ability to hire top-notch announcers was just one of many skills he brought to the table. Obviously, names like Buck and Caray resonate with fans of baseball; fans of the old school of Wrestling at the Chase surely remember the dry, distinctive call of Matysik and Mickey Garagiola's whimsical color commentary.

In fact, it was a job that Garagiola didn't seek out. Becoming the color man and ring announcer, that was all Muchnick.

"The show had been on since 1959," he says. "My brother had been doing it in the 1960s. In 1969, Sam asked me to be a ring announcer. Hell, I was a waiter -- I didn't know anything about doing that. Here I've been waiting tables, but Sam said, 'You've got a line. You can do it.' The next week, I'm announcing the fighters, where they're from, what they weighed. And I did that until the show went off the air in 1982."

For those in their 20s and 30s, Wrestling at the Chase was very much a Sunday-morning staple, when politics, religious shows and movie theme shows (like Western Theatre) competed for attention. Kids, though, obviously gravitated toward the scenes coming from the Chase, which was an absolutely bare-bones operation, with a ring, a couple of cameras, bleacher seats rising up in the back and fans within spitting distance of the contestants.

Garagiola, a delight to speak to on the subject, remembers, "Where I lived, on the Hill, every tavern played Wrestling at the Chase on Saturday nights. The people were really into it -- they'd be sitting at the bar, talking wrestling, yelling in Italian."

For some, the show was more than a passing fancy. It became an introduction into one of America's most fascinating subcultures.

"It's all real vivid to me," says Wayne St. Wayne, South Grand artist and a former pro wrestler. "Wrestling at the Chase sparked my whole interest after watching it by accident one Saturday night. Then I learned that the TV matches weren't the only matches, that they were also held at a big place called Kiel Auditorium where I'd never been. On TV, you'd get the guys fighting lesser competition, but at the Kiel, the best were going against one another.

"Going down to Kiel was something I wanted to do for a few months. And once I did, it was one of the most exciting things I'd ever do in my life. The visuals were amazing. The glow of the white ropes, the smell of beer and cigar smoke, the roar of the crowd that would shake you down to your deepest molecules."

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